The real thing

Fri, May 6, 2011, 01:00

FRIDAY INTERVIEW:Irial Finan, executive vice-president Coca-Cola

WHEN IRIAL Finan’s parents named their baby after one of Ireland’s High Kings half a century ago, it’s unlikely they had the soft drink monarchy of Coca-Cola in faraway Atlanta, Georgia, in mind for his coronation.

The name, says Finan, was suggested by a priest uncle who had an interest in all things Irish. He admits that while it has been a burden at times, the instant recognition it offers has been helpful as he has navigated the international business world for the past 29 years.

Nobody forgets an Irial, particularly one as successful as this.

Finan is speaking from an office in Atlanta that he has occupied since 2004, his position as executive vice-president viewed by many as the number-two spot in the $35-plus-billion Coca-Cola company and its occupant seen as a probable candidate for the group’s top job before too long.

Finan is coy on his prospects, saying the incumbent Muhtar Kent is doing a “fantastic job”. “For me, in my life, I feel like I’ve been very successful,” he says, adding that anything more would be “a bonus”.

He certainly has the credentials for the top position, having headed up (and merged) businesses in most parts of Europe and many other parts of the world over the past three decades.

Most of his career, before he was called into to the centre of the Coke family fold in Atlanta, was spent with Coke businesses controlled by the Athens-based Hellenic Bottling Company, one of the major global bottlers of Coca-Cola and its sister brands.

It was here Finan learned his trade, eventually becoming chief executive of the operation and managing a landmark merger.

It was also in this role that he learned one of his biggest business lessons during the 1998 currency crisis in Russia. Overnight, a devaluation of the rouble meant a division he was running there dropped about $60 billion in value, leaving Finan in a flap.

He called the head of the family that controlled the group at the time, who immediately asked if Finan could have controlled what had happened.

Finan considered this and realised that he had, in anticipation of a devaluation, done all he could in respect of the operation’s liquidity position by minimising cash held in roubles and keeping accounts receivable and payable under control. The devaluation was, he now realised, beyond the reach of his influence.

“The message was to differentiate between the things you can control and things you can’t control. Instead of feeling terrible, I suddenly felt good.”

In a way, the same goes for Ireland in its EU-IMF debt predicament, he says.

“We have the debt. We can try to get the level of the interest rate down but we’re not going to reduce the level of the debt.”

Finan tries to stay as close as possible to what’s happening in Ireland, but admits he doesn’t “get home enough”, particularly not to his native Roscommon, although he does closely follow his county’s GAA performance and is content with last weekend’s win over New York.

He can’t be accused of losing his Roscommon accent either, although all those years in the Coca-Cola “system” may have allowed a few “vacations” and “sidewalks” to creep in.

Not forgetting his roots, Finan likes to promote Ireland where he can. Emphasising that his opinions are personal, not corporate views, he says he still thinks Ireland “has an awful lot going for it”.

“From the business perspective, the reasons why you would invest in Ireland haven’t changed,” he says, citing the education levels of the population, the work ethic, the solid industrial base and the legal and tax systems.

He is reluctant to discuss our increasingly controversial corporation tax rate, saying the “overall package” is more significant. He makes the point that the Irish tax base is appealingly straightforward and transparent, where other countries might end up levying the same tax rate via a more circuitous, less open route.

“Ireland has created a broad-based attractive proposition for business, anchored with the IDA,” says Finan, arguing that the inward investment authority should be awarded more resources now that its role is so crucial.

“This is not a time where you cut everything,” says Finan, likening the State’s problems to those of a business in peril.

The perception of Ireland in US business circles is, he says, difficult to define. The new Government has “given a sense of a fresh start”, along with an awareness that we need to “accept where we are”.

“Governments can come up with good plans,” adds Finan, who interacted with the last government as a member of the prominent Irish diaspora at the 2009 Global Irish Economic Forum at Farmleigh in Dublin, and last night rubbed shoulders with Taoiseach Enda Kenny at an American Ireland Fund event in New York.

With another Farmleigh-type event planned, he baulks at the notion that such gatherings are little more than talking shops for the so-called great and good. All those who attended the last forum “paid our own airfare and paid our own hotel bills”, he says, adding that he knows for a fact that new jobs flowed from the event.

“The heart of the point is that Ireland has a pretty substantial industrial base and we’ve got to keep building on that.”

As for Coca-Cola, the company has just opened a new plant in Wexford and has extended its shared services business in Drogheda, Co Louth. It definitely sees Ireland as “attractive”, says Finan, a man in a position to know.

At Coke, Finan is responsible for all of the bottling undertaken by the group and for investments the group may have in other bottlers or businesses. He also minds the soft-drink group’s vast concentrate production business, including operations in Ballina, Co Mayo, and Athy, Co Kildare.

In short, 85,000 people and $8 billion in revenues cross his desk every day, and he travels about 70 per cent of the time. This year alone, he has already made work trips to at least 11 countries.

On the day he speaks to The Irish Times, he started work at about 7.15am and has packed in high-level chats with people in India, Germany and our Skype conversation before elevenses have even approached. Later, he will review staff with a colleague from London, lunch with a hot new prospect, plan trips to the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore and fly to New York for the American Ireland Fund event, at which he will be personally honoured. He will then head home to Atlanta to partake in this weekend’s celebrations marking Coca-Cola’s 125th birthday. Phew.

“I tend to have a perspective,” he says of all the pressures of work. “It’s my job, I love my job and this is a great company.”

And the glamorous travel? “The day you start feeling, wow I’m great, I’m travelling all over the place, you’ve lost it.”

He summarises his professional philosophy as: “Do a good job and you’ll progress,” adding that this should apply even if the job isn’t an individual’s first choice, as may be the case for today’s graduates.

The roots of his values are based firmly in Castlerea, Co Roscommon, where his housewife and builder parents elected to sacrifice their comforts in favour of the education of their eight children. Finan attended a Carmelite school in Moate, Co Westmeath, before progressing to University College Galway and accountancy training. By the time he was 25, he was financial director of one of Coke’s operations in Dublin.

His ambition, he says, was simply to better himself. The notion worked for Finan, who believes it could also pay dividends for Ireland as a whole. “From a personal perspective, I happen to believe Ireland’s best days are ahead. I just have to get everybody else to believe it.”


Name: Irial Finan

Age: 53

Position: Executive vice-president of the Coca-Cola Company, which employs 2,000 people in Ireland.

Family: Married to Deirdre with two daughters, Ciara (23) and Róisín (20).

Why is he in the news?His company celebrates its 125th anniversary this weekend and he has just been honoured by the American Ireland Fund.

Something you might expect: He would travel home from the US especially if his native Roscommon managed to reach the All-Ireland final.

Something that might surprise:He likes to collect stamps and is always willing to be distracted by them as he travels the world.